Thousands of Afghans flood into Greece and rest of Europe

Posted by admin on May 5th, 2009

SUSAN SACHS. Special to The Globe and Mail. May 5, 2009

PATRAS, GREECE — The migrants who flock to this busy port city try just about anything to get out. They cling to the undersides of tractor-trailers being loaded onto ships and ferries. They sneak into refrigerated trucks, shivering among crates of vegetables. They seal themselves like amateur Houdinis into false-bottom cubbyholes in the backs of vans. Their destination is Italy, the next stop after Greece on the people-trafficking routes into Europe. Some are caught before they make the crossing. Some die of suffocation in their airless hiding places.

But hope and desperation keep them coming, making Patras a magnet for thousands of illegal migrants that Greek officials say they can no longer manage or absorb.

“We’re trying to contain the problem,” said Coast Guard Captain Athanasios Athanasopoulos, whose officers spend much of their time checking outbound ships for stowaways. “But it’s difficult, and I don’t know if it’s even feasible.”

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 At any one time, according to police estimates, about 4,000 migrants live rough in the streets and empty lots of Patras, waiting to try their luck at being smuggled to Italy and from there to points north.

It’s a problem bedevilling all of Europe’s Mediterranean countries, as migrants are smuggled to the most accessible European port, and then left to fend for themselves.

Many of them come via Turkey from the Middle East and Africa. But most are believed to be Afghan men, a group that has become so entrenched that it runs its own sprawling shantytown about 10 minutes walk from the harbour.

Fights flare up regularly between rival gangs of migrants and smuggling rings. Earlier this year, the tensions exploded into a running battle between Somalis and Afghans through the fashionable pedestrian district near the quays.

Greek authorities now say they intend to round up undocumented migrants and knock down their makeshift encampments before the summer tourist season gets into full swing. Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, calling the camps a sanitation and security nightmare, said migrants would be locked up in an old military barracks outside town until a new detention centre is built.

But locking up migrants is not a solution, social workers says.

“They think of those people as criminals and not as refugees,” says Christos Karapiperis with the Patras branch of the Hellenic Red Cross.

People living near the two sites have already objected to the planned transfer, saying they do not want the migrants as neighbours either. So have the few Greek aid workers who visit the camp.

The threat of detention is also unlikely to discourage determined migrants who see Patras as a way-station to the rest of Europe, according to immigration experts and refugee advocates.

“You can’t keep them away. They come back,” said Alexandros Zavos, president of the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Athens. “What can you do?” he added, “Build more jails, more camps, camps for 200,000 people? That’s unimaginable.”

The same questions are being asked at other saturated border crossings within the European Union.

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government has said it will deploy troops in major cities this summer to round up illegal immigrants and will hold new arrivals in island detention centres until they can be expelled.

The French government also has vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants near Calais, the commercial port on the northern coast serving ships going to Britain.

In the squatters’ camp in Patras, arranged in an orderly grid of shacks made from packing crates and construction debris, many of the men said their only goal was to leave Greece.

“They don’t want us here so they should just let us go,” said Samir Waza, a 27-year-old Afghan lounging by the metal container that serves as the camp’s mosque.

A few chickens pecked in the dirt at his feet. A satellite dish poked from a nearby hut that had been patched together from rotting boards and wrapped in plastic sheeting. Down an alleyway, other men were brushing their teeth near a communal shower fed by water from a tapped city main.

Mr. Waza said he travelled for three months to get to Greece and had been trying for five weeks to sneak onboard one of the trucks headed for Italy. In Afghanistan, he added, “it is too much shooting and Taliban” so he was headed for Britain.

The influx of undocumented migrants coming into Greece – and then trying to sneak out – has grown dramatically in the past few years.

Last year, more than 146,000 people were arrested for entering the country illegally, a 65-per-cent increase over 2006, and many more are believed to slip in undetected. The tiny Greek islands closest to Turkey experienced a 10-fold jump in the number of migrants washing ashore and floundering in leaky boats near their beaches.

If they are caught, undocumented migrants are fingerprinted, held for a few days in overcrowded detention centres and then released with orders to leave the country within 30 days.

But the deportation orders can only be enforced if the migrant’s home country is willing to take him or her back. In the case of Asians, Africans and Arabs, who make up an increasingly large proportion of illegal migrants, that rarely happens, according to Greek officials. The political asylum system, meanwhile, has a backlog of some 70,000 cases.

“The numbers are so huge that it’s becoming extremely difficult for us to pick out the political refugees from the economic migrants,” said Konstantinos Bitsios, secretary-general of the Ministry of Interior. Greece, he added, is “unable to cope.”


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